Contrary to what Diedrick had believed of a castle built into a mountain, it was outfitted with all the modern amenities one would expect of a race that hadn’t yet mastered space flight. As he made his way through the long hallway past the foyer, he saw electronically-locked doors, electric light fixtures, a comm system wired in the walls and ceilings, and even a few vacuum cleaners here and there (though it was beyond him why they would be needed in a stone-floored hallway).
Deciding to gather some more information before meeting with the ruler of a race of previously-mythical beings, Diedrick chose to ask a few very important questions as he walked. “What should I expect when I meet with the king?”
“Expect?” Commander Steelbeak echoed.
Diedrick nodded with a flat look. “Yes, expect; what should I act like, do I need to bow, should I refer to him by ‘your majesty’...stuff like that.”
The elder gryphon’s eyes widened. “Oh! Yes, apologies for that. Well, I say act as you normally would to superiors; his subjects are expected to bow and refer to him as ‘your highness’ or ‘your majesty’, but foreign dignitaries and military officers are exempt from that rule. Instead, give him a respectful salute while looking him in the eyes, and refer to him as ‘King Razorbeak’. You are to hold your salute until he sits, and wait for him to address you before speaking. Request permission to speak freely if you feel simple questions will be inadequate for either of you.”
“I’m supposed to look him in the eyes?” Diedrick asked in confusion.
Commander Steelbeak nodded. “Of course. Meeting a gryphon’s eyes shows that you respect them and gives you the standing that befits your military upbringing. Averting your eyes would mean that you are either a liar or a coward, neither of which the king would take kindly to.” He thought for a moment longer before saying, “Also ‒ and I’m only telling you this because you don’t know ‒ he will attempt to cow you by threatening you, or even approaching you directly. This is a test to show your resolve, and you are not to back down, no matter what.”
Diedrick nodded before raising an eyebrow. “Wait, if this is a test, why are you basically giving me a cheat sheet?”
Commander Steelbeak considered his answer for a moment. “Because I do not serve the crown, I serve Gryphonia; I will do what is best for my country, and right now, I think you might be a very nice blessing bestowed upon us. I want you to succeed, for if you do, we all do. There is much we can learn about you, and hopefully there is much we can help you understand so that you can get home.”
Diedrick nodded. “I understand. I’m much the same, really. Luckily for me, most of the time I work on only vague orders, and more often than not I am completely on my own. For example: before I found your planet, I had been alone for nearly two months.”
The commander nodded before stopping at an oversized double door, turning on his heel. “The throne room is just ahead; we’ll need to temporarily take your weapons.”
Seeing as how he figured these gryphons were his best chance to figure things out, Diedrick complied and removed his energy pistol, his rifle, and his combat blade. Next, he opened his waist pouches and removed the ammunition he had on him. Once that was done, one of the armored guards at the door patted him down briefly before nodding, and the doors were opened.
Diedrick beheld what he would have expected of a throne room in structure, but it seemed rather bare in decoration. He had expected decorative tapestries, a long crimson rug, and maybe even an army of butlers waiting and beck-and-call. Instead, he saw bare granite walls leading to a small raised platform where a comfortable wooden throne sat. He noticed as all but the commander and three soldiers broke away to stand near the door, while the rest made their way to the throne.
As the five of them stopped at the foot of a small set of stairs leading to the throne platform, Diedrick began to fidget with boredom. A glare from one of the gryphon soldiers stopped him, but he still couldn’t help but drum his gloved fingers upon his hip.
After a few minutes of patient waiting, a tall slate-gray gryphon entered the hall from a door behind the throne, and it didn’t take much thinking for Diedrick to realize that this was the king. He was dressed in rather spartan clothing compared to what he had expected of royalty, but it wasn’t his job to judge.
As the soldiers around him saluted by holding a hand over the eyebrow, Diedrick only marveled for a second at the familiar motion before doing it himself, meeting the sharp golden eyes of the king as he made his way around the throne and sat down. Once he had done so, Diedrick lowered his hand and stood at ease with his arms crossed behind him, waiting for the king to speak.
With a wave of his clawed hand, the king ordered the guards to leave, save for the commander. After a few moments of waiting for the hall to clear, the king finally spoke to Diedrick.
“So, you are the strange creature that came from the sky.” he mused aloud, a confident smirk on his face. With a critical eye he concluded, “You aren’t quite what I expected. Somehow I envisioned someone a bit taller, and not so...flimsy.”
Already the shadowed threats were beginning, so Diedrick remembered what he had been told. With respect he replied, “That’s probably what many of my enemies have thought before they knew no more, King Razorbeak.”
The king’s eyes widened for just a moment before he smiled and stood, approaching the alien. “Well then, let’s have a look at you.” He raised his clawed hands before pausing, locking eyes with Diedrick. “Do you mind?”
Diedrick was unsure of the question at first, but then realized what the king must have been asking. With a nod of acquiescence, he allowed the older gryphon to place his clawed limbs upon him.
King Razorbeak immediately noticed a few things about this new creature in his land. First, the reason he didn’t seem so large and imposing was because he lacked both fur and feathers, which usually would have added quite a bit of size to the body. His shoulders, forearms, and neck were much thicker than that of a gryphon, and the fingers, while they seemed to lack claws, were far more dexterous. The more the king inspected the captain, he came to find that it was likely the only thing gryphons would be able to outclass him in was flight, simply because he lacked wings. When Commander Steelbeak originally told him of what this being was capable of, he had believed his old friend to be exaggerating. Now, looking at the eight-foot tall man, he realized it was quite possible the commander may have been underestimating. King Razorbeak was no fool, after all; he knew better than to ignore the obvious ‒ that this creature was taller, stronger, and faster than a gryphon on land.
Cautiously lifting the upper lip, King Razorbeak noticed a set of well-developed canines, confirming his initial belief that he was dealing with a fellow predator. This made things easier, since he knew that prey species were generally easily offended.
“What are you called, creature?” the king asked as he released the captain.
Diedrick cleared his throat. “My name is Diedrick Cornelius Thompson. My kind is known as Quod homo ex solis, or the ‘people of the sun’.”
King Razorbeak nodded. “I see. If I am not mistaken, your kind seems to be a highly evolved form of primates, yes?” Diedrick nodded. “And you are carnivorous in nature.”
“Omnivorous,” Diedrick corrected, “like many primates, at least from my world. To put it simply, we will eat anything so long as it’s edible.”
King Razorbeak grinned. “Indeed. Would you be above eating a pony?”
“I don’t eat sapient beings.” Diedrick shot back, realizing what the king was essentially asking. “It’s a moral thing, really; I don’t want to have to explain to one’s family and friends just how tasty they were.”
King Razorbeak barked a laugh, nodding. “I can understand that. Besides, ponies are rather touchy on the subject of eating meat. Heavens forbid nature actually runs its course and a predator hunts and eats a prey animal. However, you intrigue me, Diedrick. You, a stranger, come to my land and seek help. What makes you think that was a smart idea?”
“Another veiled threat.” Diedrick thought.
With a confident smile he replied, “Because I have things to offer in return that you can’t get from anyone else.”
“I could always use persuasive methods to get what I wish out of you.” the king threatened.
Trading blow for blow verbally, Diedrick thought for a moment before making his response. “You could surely try, but you would end up with no new information and a lot of dead soldiers.”
King Razorbeak took another step back, subtly tensing his arms and legs. “You seem rather confident in your abilities.”
“I’m a ship captain, King Razorbeak. It’s my job to be able to read my foes, and your kind would pose little to no threat to me in a fair fight.” Diedrick answered confidently. “Now if one of you were to take to the skies, that would make things a little more difficult, but I’m still confident I could win.”
“Is that so?” the king questioned. “Well then, perhaps we’ll need to test that soon.”
Diedrick shrugged. “So long as you know someone who’s smart enough to admit when they’ve lost, that won’t be a problem. I don’t want to break any bones on any of your people simply because they were trying to prove something by taking on the big bad alien.”
King Razorbeak shook his head. “We fight for honor and the thrill of battle, but we are far from the savages our kind used to be. Worry not stranger, should one of my men wish to fight you, you will find them an honorable opponent.” With a firm nod he said, “Now, we must discuss a few issues we seem to have come across. First of all, you seem to have become quite at odds with ponies within only minutes of landing on our world; how did you accomplish this?”
Diedrick shrugged. “She wanted to detain me as a prisoner. I said no and tried to just leave the planet, and she tried to stop me. There’s not much more to it than that, really; I don’t inherently have anything against these ‘ponies’, but I won’t be talked down to and neither am I going to be treated like a criminal when I’ve done nothing to deserve it.”
The king nodded once again. “Understandable. Next, we have a potential issue with the power you displayed, as I am not so foolish to assume that your weaponry is the extent of that prowess. Because of this, you will be watched by Commander Steelbeak himself as you enjoy your stay here. Do you find issue with this?”
“I don’t.” Diedrick answered. “Honestly, I’d be surprised if you didn’t have someone watching me. So long as there aren’t any bars on the doors and windows of wherever I’m staying, that’s good enough for me.”
“Excellent,” King Razorbeak answered happily, “then it seems we will get on quite well, I think. Lastly, in return for our services, I must ask that you do not leave the city without an escort while you stay here. It could cause undesirable developments across the kingdom if an unknown being is seen freely walking the lands, and I cannot risk a panic.”
Diedrick shrugged. “That seems fair enough, so long as I’m not chained up or anything.”
“We’re cautious, but not barbarians.” King Razorbeak shot back, a little offended. “The time for needless imprisonment left when my father died, and if I have anything to say about it, such a time will never live again in these lands. We are a people of enlightenment now, and we hope to equally balance our military strength with mutual respect for others.” He chuckled softly. “Some of the elder gryphons think it mad, but I see the potential for a much better way of life for my people, and the results thus far do not lie. Worry not, captain; as long as you stay here, you will be treated as a guest, not a prisoner.”
Showing a smile of gratitude, Diedrick nodded. “That seems very acceptable, King Razorbeak. Thank you.”
“I am pleased that we have come to an agreement.” the king replied with a smile of his own, nodding to the waiting Commander Steelbeak. “Commander, please escort the captain to where he’ll be staying and return his gear. We will speak more at a later date.”
As Diedrick left the throne room with Commander Steelbeak, he couldn’t help but ask, “He’s giving me my gear back?”
With a chuckle, the gryphon nodded. “He is indeed. The king is a very good judge of character; if gryphons had obvious ‘special’ talents like ponies did, reading others would be his.”
The mention of a special talent that these ponies seemed to have confused Diedrick, but he kept silent for the moment. Questions could come later; for now, he simply wanted somewhere to relax so he could digest all the new information that had been given to him.
After a few minutes of walking (and quite a few curious stares from the people of Cragsbreach), Diedrick found himself standing in front of a veritable castle in its own right, the grand manor of Commander Steelbeak speaking of his respect in the community and the rewards given for his years of service.
“Home sweet home.” the gryphon commented with a grin, turning to Diedrick and jerking his head toward the front door. “Come, you should meet my family. I wouldn’t want you to-”
Just before the commander could finish, the front door was thrust open with quite a bit of force as a brown and white blur shot through it, threading between Diedrick’s legs. Just as Diedrick looked to see what was currently using him as a shield, he heard a piercing screech, followed by another much larger blur slamming into his chest.
Only his superior size and weight kept Diedrick from being knocked over from the hit, but his assaulter was not so lucky. Sitting by his feet was a gryphon with violet eyeshadow and violet-tipped feathers on its head, leading him to believe it to be a young female. She was rubbing her brow as she pushed herself to a sitting position, panting softly.
“Ugh,” she groaned in a daze, “what’d I hit?”
With a frustrated sigh, Commander Steelbeak rubbed the bridge of his beak. “Captain Diedrick, please allow me to introduce you to my rambunctious daughters, Gilda and Tara.”
“Captain…” Gilda whispered to herself before turning her head up and opening her eyes.
Upon seeing the captain, she gasped and scrambled to her feet as her feathers fluffed up in an instinctive attempt to seem larger. After taking a moment to realize she was likely appearing to be a frightened little chick, she straightened her posture and locked her eyes with this “captain” before her. She mentally noted that he was a good two feet taller than her, and wore a peculiar outfit that covered his entire body. From his sparsely-haired head, she could determine that whatever he was, his kind didn’t grow fur everywhere, which meant the clothes were likely used to cover himself in lieu of hair or feathers.
After inspecting her father’s guest, Gilda concluded that he was obviously a military guy, and any uniformed officer was okay in her book. So, with a confident grin, she extended her hand to him. “Nice to meet you, captain. I take it those pony lame-o’s couldn’t handle you?”
Diedrick took the young gryphoness’ clawed hand in his own and shook it firmly. “A pleasure to meet you as well ma’am, and no, I suppose not. Already I find myself fitting in quite a bit better with your kind than theirs.”
Gilda released the captain’s hand and nodded, noticing just how strong his grip was. “In all my years of knowing about ponies and living near them, I’ve had one friend out of the thousands of them that could handle me.” She rolled her hand in the air in an indistinct manner. “You know the kind; they get all scared of things that are different from them, and so they don’t want it around.”
Diedrick nodded wordlessly before looking behind him, seeing a much smaller gryphon hiding behind his large form. Turning on his heel to face it, he kneeled down until he met the gold-flecked brown eyes of the commander’s second daughter. With a gentle tone of voice he greeted, “And so you must be Tara. It’s a pleasure to meet you, miss.”
The young chick looked up into the man’s eyes and nodded shyly, realizing she had sought safety from her older sister by hiding behind a complete stranger. “Y-yes sir.” After recognizing the familiar look in the man’s eyes, as well as the sight of armor ‒ unfamiliar though it was ‒ she gasped and asked, “Are you a soldier like daddy?”
Diedrick nodded with a smile. “I am indeed, though I’m not from this world. I’m lost, so your father will be helping me get home; is it okay if I stay with you until then?”
Taking a moment to think the question over, the gryphon chick then nodded rapidly, her crimson-tinted head feathers bobbing cutely. “Yeah, that’ll be so cool!”
Diedrick stood, still smiling, before looking back to his host. “Well, let us not put it off any longer now. I am sure the sooner things are settled in, the sooner we can begin helping each other out.”
Commander Steelbeak nodded before looking to his older daughter. “Gilda, please take his weapons to the guest room on the second floor; you know the one. Prepare the room for a non-gryphon guest.” He then looked to the younger and said, “Tara, go find your mum and tell her we’ll be having a guest stay with us, so we’ll need an extra place at the table set for tonight.” With a duo of salutes, the two younger gryphons rushed inside the house, Gilda only taking a moment to gather Diedrick’s gear as he handed it to her.
Once the two were alone, Diedrick looked to the commander with a raised eyebrow. “Rather obedient children you have there, commander.”
Smiling warmly, Commander Steelbeak nodded. “Aye. From a young age I instilled within them the values of hard work, respect of one’s elders, and good manners. True that they will slip up here and there, but they are still children, after all.” He then shrugged, closing his eyes and chuckling. “Gilda has just reached adulthood, and I’ll not be false and say her adolescence was easy to deal with. Still, she has truly come into her own, and though she has a long way to go, she is progressing and that’s what counts.”
Diedrick nodded as he followed his host inside the large home. “Well just so you know, my respect for you just increased a few levels.” As Commander Steelbeak glanced back at him, he shrugged. “It takes a good man to be a good father, as in many ways, parenthood is one of the most difficult jobs in existence.” He pointed toward the interior of the home. “To have two well-mannered children like that it’s clear that you’ve done a fine job with them.”
Eyes widening in surprise of the captain’s observations, Commander Steelbeak nodded. “I do try. So long as they are happy and don’t end up harlots, I feel I’ve done a good job with my girls.”
Diedrick found he enjoyed the blunt nature of Commander Steelbeak’s speech, allowing him to relax just a hair. Gently closing the front door behind him, he sighed thoughtfully as he envisioned roads in his own life that had gone untraveled; roads that might have provided him his own family. Shaking the thought away, he rolled his eyes at his own depressing thoughts. ‘I’m still young after all,’ he thought, ‘so it isn’t as if such a thing is completely off the table for me.’
“Now,” the commander announced, bringing Diedrick out of his inner musings, “I’ll allow you to settle yourself and clean up. Dinner is at sundown, and anything you need you can ask Gilda for; her room is on the same floor as yours.”
Glancing around and realizing just how familiar the architecture was, Diedrick saw fit to file yet another strange similarity away in his mind for later analysis. For now, he simply nodded to his host as he was led up a large wooden staircase, which gave way to an open second floor that was obviously made to accommodate both flying and flightless residents.
After a short tour of the upstairs, Commander Steelbeak beckoned his guest to an open room, which had an alien rifle propped up against the window of one wall. “Well, here it is. I do hope it is to your liking.”
Diedrick entered the room and found it furnished with a bookshelf, a queen-sized bed, and a nightstand. While by most people such a room would be considered spartan, Diedrick was simply happy to be staying somewhere that didn’t have bars caging him or cameras watching him. So, with a grateful smile, he nodded. “This will do quite well, thank you sir.” He then snapped his fingers and said, “Oh wait, one thing though. I don’t seem to have any clothes, so I’ll need to go back to my ship and-”
“Already taken care of, captain.” Commander Steelbeak interrupted with a smile, pointing to a steel locker set in one corner of the room. “During the ruckus of disembarking and preparing you to meet the king, one of my men took the liberty of bringing out this container, which was helpfully marked ‘civy wear’.”
‘And they can read english.’ Diedrick thought quietly, putting yet another thought away to think about later. He nodded with a smile. “Well I thank you and whoever saw fit to grab this, as it saves me a lot of time. Now,” he turned back to his host, “I need to wash up.”
Commander Steelbeak nodded. “Gilda will be able to show you where the washroom is and how everything works. Apologies, but I must depart, as I have a few things to take care of before the day ends. My daughters will be able to answer any questions you have until I return, so I ask that you not bother my mate.”
Diedrick raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know what sort of aura I’m giving off, but I don’t intend to disrespect the wife of someone who’s letting me stay in their home.”
Commander Steelbeak chuckled and waved a claw at him. “I meant no offense, simply that she gets ‘in the zone’ when she’s preparing supper for the family, and can become more than a little upset if she’s bothered.”
“Ah.” Diedrick murmured before extending his hand. “Well, I appreciate you opening your home to me, sir. It’s become obvious to me that not everyone on this world is so welcoming.”
Frowning at the thought of the Equestrian princess’ behavior earlier in the day, he sighed. “She has lived longer than you or I can fathom as mortals, and sometimes her behaviors can be a bit eccentric when dealing with the unknown. Give her time and she’ll come around, I promise; whether you are here for a week or months, she is a good ally to have on your side.”
Deciding not to respond verbally, Diedrick merely nodded as his hand was shook and the commander left silently, leaving him alone in the room for the moment. He reflected quietly on the fact that this was the first time he had stayed in a foreign land with all of his weaponry still with him, and one of the only times he had done so with the knowledge of the entire military and a monarch. With a sigh, he strode to the steel locker and typed in the combination, causing the lock to unhinge and the lid to spring open as a few stray articles of clothing were flung into the air, only to land on Diedrick’s head. Removing the pair of boxers and sock that had taken residence on his head, he stood and pulled a pair of pants, a shirt and a towel from the locker before turning and heading back to the doorway.
‘Who and what the hell is that thing?’ Gilda thought to herself, confused as to whether she should be upset that her father invited someone to stay without telling her, or happy that said person wasn’t another snobby ambassador from Equestria; for creatures that thought gryphons to be “uncouth” and “barbaric” in many ways, they sure liked to visit a lot. This new creature though, he seemed very different in comparison to her father’s usual guests, and was a soldier, which was always cool in her book.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she trusted him. Her father had long ago pointed out to her the difference between a normal soldier, and veterans of war. This guest, he had that look of one who’d seen combat quite a bit, and the fact he was alive meant that he’d probably done his fair share in said conflict. She wasn’t afraid of him of course ‒ Gilda wasn’t scared of anyone except her father ‒ but she was just...wary. Healthy caution kept people alive, after all.
Just as she rounded the corner of her bedroom door though, again she ran into the guest, but thankfully kept her stance this time. Forcing herself not to flinch under the sharp and alert eyes trained on her, Gilda offered him a friendly grin. “How are you settling in, captain?”
Diedrick shrugged, holding up his clothes where she could see them. “Alright, but I could really use a wash. Your father said you would be able to show me how everything works so that I don’t blow up your house or something.”
Chuckling, Gilda shook her head. “We use water just like ponies do, so I’m not sure how you’d do that. Still, I won’t lie and say it wouldn’t be pretty entertaining to see you pull that off.”
Stepping away from her doorway and curling a clawed finger for the captain to follow her, Gilda made her way to the large washroom nestled against a corner of the upstairs floor. For some reason, she felt the need to smooth down her shirt, shorts and feathers as she led her guest to their destination, but determined it to be unimportant to think about. After all, she just wanted to look presentable to him since she had already run into him twice already. Mentally chastising herself, Gilda sighed in embarrassment. ‘Ugh, did I really do that? The guy probably thinks I’m a clumsy ass now; great going, G.’
As the two of them entered the tiled washroom, Gilda began pointing to and naming off its fixtures. “Sink and shower ‒ red knob for hot water, blue for cold. Toilet if you need to use it, and the handle flushes-”
“I think I can get it from here, ma’am.” Diedrick interrupted with a chuckle. “My kind hasn’t seen things quite like this for nearly a thousand years now, but I’m sure I can figure it out.”
Backing away and coughing nervously, Gilda nodded. “Right...I didn’t mean to offend or anything, man. It’s just, you’re from a different world and all, so I figured maybe-”
“That I wouldn’t know how to use a water-pressure shower or a gravity-pump toilet, right?” Diedrick finished with a smirk. “It’s alright, I know my way around here. Thank you very much for your help.”
Deigning to remain silent, Gilda quickly left before she could make any more a fool of herself. Even with her reservations about this stranger, she still found herself oddly excited to get to know the alien being. After all, he couldn’t be anywhere near as bad as ponies could be, could he?
The hours before sunset found Diedrick sitting alone in his provided room, freshly groomed and dressed down in common street clothes. It had been nearly two spaceyears since he had felt the unfitted fabric of civilian clothing, but he could readily admit that it had its charms. Though it had been nearly ten years since he had taken up his military career, slipping back into a non-wartime role came easily to him, though his training still urged him to think logically in all situations.
He was on an alien world with no contact with Sol HQ or any other known allies. He may or may not be able to get help from the people of this world, but the fact that there are so many similarities between this world and the one his people came from was beginning to worry him for some reason.
The help offered to him was a double-edged sword, in that he was expected to offer something useful in return. Because of his military career, he was sure it would have something to do with either technology, military tactics, or even secrets that he might know (though the latter wasn’t much). All he knew for sure was that he would have to make sure the status quo stayed in his favor, as he couldn’t be positive if these gryphons would continue being accommodating if he was assumed to be a used-up asset. More worryingly beyond all that though, what if the rip in spacetime that clearly brought him to this place worked on a fluctuating time flow? It might mean that if he found a way back to familiar space, he could end up decades before or after he was just in his home system, which could cause any number of things to go wrong; the fabric of time could be a fickle mistress, he had found. The truth of the matter was that he had no idea what he would do if and when he found out where he was in the metaverse, and the thought of not knowing how to act scared Diedrick.
He was going to form new allies on this world. More than anything, he knew a lone wolf in the cosmos was a dead one, so more friends and allies meant more collective strength and a greater chance at continued survival. He would need to find out what they knew and how they worked as separate cultures, as well as how this strange planetary system worked and just what the hell this strange energy surrounding the planet was, as well as that force that princess used against him. He would need to be alert for any suspicious activity against him, and would need to be ready to act quickly if he caught scent of something dirty going on.
First, before anything else, he was hungry.
Diedrick stood from the bed and stretched briefly before making a few strides to the door and heading down the stairway to the bottom floor, from where he could already smell something lovely being cooked by his hostess, no doubt. Seeing as how he hadn’t formally met Commander Steelbeak’s wife yet though, Diedrick thought it better if the commander himself was the one to introduce them. He was sure the missus probably knew there was a guest in the house, but he didn’t want to startle a potentially-hostile gryphoness.
Thankfully, his concerns were handled a mere second later.
The door opened with a loud, “I’m home,” followed by the master of the residence entering, nodding to his guest with a smile. “Well, you clean up quite nicely.” Looking over the captain, Commander Steelbeak chuckled. “You’re a might bit sparse in the fur department, aren’t you?”
Diedrick ran his palm over his face and nodded. “Yeah. My people evolved from primates originally, but our ancestors lost a lot of our fur in the process, which is why we wear clothes now. Still, there’s nothing quite like the feel of something like silk against bare skin.”
“And you’ll never know what it feels like against clean fur.” the commander retorted, sporting a grin. “Now, I think we’ve put this off long enough, and it smells like supper is just about finished. Come and meet my wife before she sets the table, so we can say a stranger didn’t turn up to eat with us.” Under his breath he added, “Though it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened in this house…”
Without another word the duo made their way to the extravagant dining room, which was furnished with a dark-stained maple table with sixteen chairs spreading about its impressive size. A cushiony and soft rug separated the table from the hardwood floor, and a gaudy chandelier lit the room.
Before he could stop himself Diedrick blurted, “What year is it?”
Commander Steelbeak glanced at him and answered, “3042, though our people have only been civilized for the last two-thousand years. We use Equestria’s calendar, as it is more accurate with when the races of the world began to evolve from creatures of instinct to creatures of true sapience.”
If what the gryphon said was true, it meant that the people of this planet advanced far faster than the people of Earth had. The thought made him a bit wary, as this meant it was likely the beings of this planet were a mere few years away from space travel, and subsequent colonization of their galaxy; if they continued to progress technologically as quickly as they had thus far, Diedrick could admit to himself that they had the potential to overtake the Sol system in universal exploration.
Such a thought was for another time however, as a plainly-dressed gryphoness entered the dining room.
One of the things that confused Diedrick about gryphons (in both the realistic sense and in mythology) was their biology: were they innately avian or mammalian? The reason he thought this was because while they had the wings, feathers, and head of a bird of prey, they had the lower half of a lion, complete with padded feet and a tail. Such things wouldn’t have been much of a problem normally, but the humanoid structure of their bodies on this world gave them a disturbingly appealing appearance to a soldier such as Diedrick, who hadn’t seen another of his own kind for months now. Feminine hips melded easily into the shiny brown feathers of the body, but underneath the down of the upper torso was clearly two very familiar mounds, thankfully covered by clothing that Diedrick thanked multiple deities the people of this planet wore. It was at that moment that Diedrick found a very disturbing thought claw its way from the depths of his imagination, right to the forefront:
‘I wonder just how humanoid they are?’
Diedrick mentally shook the images away as he realized the commander was speaking to him, gesturing to his wife. “...this is my mate and better half, General Typhoon.”
Raising his eyebrow, Diedrick couldn’t help but remark, “That’s quite a strong name.” Doing a mental double-take, he added, “Wait, general? Like, as in, your superior?”
Commander Steelbeak chuckled and nodded. “I did call her my better half, didn’t I?”
Realizing he was in the presence of one of far superior rank to him, Diedrick had to restrain himself from standing at attention and saluting sharply. Instead, realizing that this was an informal situation, he extended his hand and nodded with a respectful smile, meeting her eyes as he had with the king. “It’s an honor, ma’am.”
Rolling her eyes, the general clasped his hand in her own with a chuckle. “Dear, you’re a guest in my home. Drop the soldier act and just call me Tee, or Ty, or something else; you’re not one of my men, so you don’t need to act like I’m going to send you to the brig or something. In my home, you are my esteemed guest and I am your hostess, so don’t be afraid to speak with me as an equal.” Releasing Diedrick’s hand she continued with, “I do appreciate the respect, but I would much rather you address me with only as much respect as I deserve as a new acquaintance. I receive enough salutes and ‘yes ma’am’ answers at work, so I don’t need it here unless I’m telling my girls to do something.”
Nodding firmly, Diedrick smiled. “Very well, I accept your terms.”
Recognizing that Diedrick’s military training seemed to run much deeper than she initially thought, she simply sighed and shrugged. “We’ll work on that some more later. Now, please wash your hands before sitting at the table; dinner will be ready shortly.”
As Typhoon left the room, Diedrick stood silently next to the commander for a few moments before commenting, “I feel like she makes one hell of an officer when she’s working. She just projects this aura that demands obedience, even if she’s just asking something.”
Commander Steelbeak nodded. “She does, but it’s also what makes her such a good mother and wife. She keeps me and the girls in line when we go mad, and because of her position is quite respected in the community.”
Raising his eyebrow Diedrick asked, “Isn’t the two of you being married a bit of a conflict of interests in your work?”
“Not at all.” Commander Steelbeak replied with a smile. “I answer directly to the king, not her, as I handle affairs within the palace and security of his highness. She handles the regular military, and only presides over my station during wartime.” Chuckling lightly he explained, “It’s actually because of my wife that such measures were taken within the military. When it was revealed that the two of us were dating many years ago, she was already a lieutenant colonel, and had brought our people out of civil war with King Razorbeak’s help. She made it clear that if measures weren’t taken to fix the issue with us being together, she would retire. Well, as you can imagine, the king and his advisors couldn’t afford to lose such an important and respected officer because of such a simple issue, so they resolved it by reorganizing the balance of power, and making the royal guard its own separate entity with a private command chain.”
Nodding with understanding, Diedrick smiled. He always liked to hear about how people would fight fang and claw for that which is most important to them, no matter what it was. Such a thing revealed special people in the world with conviction, and people like that were the type that Diedrick tended to gravitate towards, since he felt them to be kindred spirits. True that he’d not yet found himself faced with a decision that would require such a resolute stance, but he was confident he would likely react in a similar way to this gryphoness, Typhoon.
Walking over to what Diedrick recognized as a stereo, the commander pressed a button on the front of it and turned a knob, allowing peaceful classical-style music to begin flowing throughout the home. A moment later, the sound of wings and feet on the second level preceded the two younger gryphons of the household entering the dining area, greeting their father with a smile and nod before walking into the kitchen to wash their hands.
“Yet again, I’m surprised at how obedient your children are, sir.” Diedrick commented, impressed.
The commander nodded silently before turning his eyes to Diedrick, requesting, “Please, enough with the ‘sir’ thing. Same as my wife, you are not my subordinate, you are my guest. Call me Steelbeak, please.”
Nodding, Diedrick offered him a smile. “Understood, Steelbeak. I meant what I said, though; I remember my mother often had to come up to my room and drag me away from whatever I was doing so that I would remember to eat sometimes.” He shrugged. “I guess it’s just nice to see kids who listen better than I did as a child.”
“Do you have children, Diedrick?” Steelbeak asked curiously.
Shaking his head, Diedrick sighed. “No, I don’t. With how wild my teenage years were and my military involvement beginning in young adulthood, I didn’t have time for it. I had more than my share of opportunities, but I didn’t want my child’s only memories of his or her father to be occasional visits home, with their mother doing the majority of the childrearing jobs.” He smiled fondly, remembering his own childhood. “I had a good upbringing, and I wanted to make sure my own kid had the same opportunities I did.” Silently, he added, ‘Though I never took most of them.’
“Good man.” Steelbeak replied, patting Diedrick on the shoulder. He then motioned to the kitchen behind him and said, “You should wash your hands as well, I think. It wouldn’t do well for you to share our table without having clean hands.”
Deferring to the good advice, Diedrick walked past Steelbeak to the kitchen, watching silently as the two young gryphons finished washing, and trying his best to keep out of the way as he did so. When they finished, he quickly soaped up and washed his own hands while marvelling at just how homey the place felt, when he had halfway expected the place to have bird perches and bird feeders or something similar. With a restrained chuckle, he had to admit to himself that the image of one of the gryphons around him sitting on a wooden perch and pecking out seed would be very entertaining to watch, all things considered. However, felt such a silly thing might be a little offensive, so he kept the thought to himself.
“You’d better get to the table soon, Diedrick.” Typhoon’s teasing tone suggested from behind him.
Turning to the gryphoness, he nodded. “Wouldn’t want whatever meal you’re making to be gone before I get to taste it, I suppose.”
“Indeed,” she returned with a smirk, “since, as the saying goes, ‘I’ve slaved all day over a hot stove for you, and this is the thanks I get?’”
Barking a laugh, Diedrick nodded and retreated to the dining room, Typhoon in tow.
The other three were already seated around the table at one end, and Typhoon took her seat at the head, next to her husband and older daughter. Motioning to the empty seat beside Gilda, Typhoon said, “Well don’t be shy, take a seat.”
For some reason, Diedrick thought it prudent to shoot a questioning glance to Gilda as he silently asked for permission to do so, as he was unsure if it might cause friction of somesort. To his relief, she nodded with a grin and watched as he took his place.
Curious at the silent exchange, Steelbeak asked, “What was that just now?”
As plates began to be filled from the platter and bowls of steaming food, Diedrick answered, “There are many different cultures just on my own world, and an infinite amount in the cosmos. As I was unsure of the family dynamics that your people hold true to, I thought it polite to ask the person I’m sitting next to if it was alright to do so, just in case.” He shrugged. “In some cultures that I know of, simply eating with the wrong hand can be considered disgusting and an insult, so I just wanted to cover all the bases.”
Chuckling, Steelbeak shook his head. “Gryphons are a rather vocal race, so worry not; if you do or say anything we don’t like, we’re going to tell you.”
Diedrick nodded as well, gratefully taking the bowl of seasoned beans passed to him. “Well, that makes everything that much easier. I don’t think I could take living around people that I always had to worry about offending, and them not saying anything about it for one reason or another.”
“Yeah, that would be ponies.” Gilda muttered with a scowl.
“Gilda…” Steelbeak warned before turning to Diedrick. “Though my daughter’s tact is a bit lacking, she is regrettably rather accurate in general. Let it be said that gryphons and ponies are two very different groups of people, with very different ways of doing things.”
Passing off the bowl and waving his hand in dismissal, Diedrick answered, “No big deal. As you well know Steelbeak, I am quite familiar already with some rather hostile behavior from them, so while I wish I could give them the benefit of the doubt, I can’t help but feel a little prejudiced against them already.”
“Prejudice tends to breed more prejudice.” Typhoon voiced sagely. “It’s why we endeavor to foster relations will all the civilized peoples of the world, since we well know just what it’s like to be discriminated against.” Shaking her head she said, “But that is a conversation for another time, preferably with plenty of liquor. Diedrick, how was your early life?”
Grasping another bowl, this one filled with what looked like red corn, Diedrick shrugged. “It was good, though I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit of a wild child, and it only got worse as I hit adolescence. That being said, I still loved my childhood, and wouldn’t change anything about it.”
“Do you have a mate waiting for you back home?” Steelbeak questioned as he began to carve up and serve what Diedrick could only describe as a very large turkey-like roasted bird.
Diedrick shook his head. “No, not really. I never really had time to form any strong relationship with the fairer sex, and most of my friends are other males, seeing as how many parts of the military are still gender-segregated to prevent unwanted pregnancies and such.” He shrugged, nodding gratefully as he was served a slice of the giant-turkey-thing. “That’s not to say there aren’t a few women I could think to look up if I was ever put on furlough, but not anything significant.”
As he began to pour glasses of wine and pass them around to his family and guest, Steelbeak frowned slightly. “That’s a shame. You’re still very young; at your age, I was on the prowl, which was how I met Typhoon here.” He gazed lovingly to his wife before turning his attention back to Diedrick. “You should refrain from waiting too long before pursuing someone who has caught your eye.”
Raising his eyebrow with a smirk Diedrick asked, “My age? How young do you think I am; take a guess.”
Looking over Diedrick, Steelbeak noticed a distinct lack of age lines or predominant wrinkles, and his eyes looked sharp and clear. After thinking for a moment he answered, “I’m guessing twenties.”
Nearly choking just on air, Diedrick fought to keep from bursting out laughing, but couldn’t fully repress a chuckle. “You’re off by anywhere from seven to sixteen years, depending on your specific guess.”
Though she’d never admit it, Gilda was quite gifted when it came to anything number-related, and she quickly worked the equations in her head before asking, “You’re thirty-six?”
Turning to the gryphon beside him, Diedrick pursed his lips and nodded. “Very impressive. Yes, I am well on my way to what most of my people would consider middle-age.” Realizing his verbal slip up, he hoped with every fiber of his being that those present would think his comment about “most” referring to a societal thing instead of biological, which to his eternal gratitude, they seemed to do just that.
“Well, I retract my earlier statement then.” Steelbeak said with a grin. “I figured you for a young chick, but it seems there is far more to you than meets the eye.
By the subtle gleam in Steelbeak’s eyes, Diedrick suddenly became somewhat less sure about his previous thought regarding his statement, as it was clear Steelbeak was far more observant than he seemed. He would have to be more careful around the commander, it seemed.
Regardless, the meal with the family of gryphons was nice, and Diedrick found many of the tastes of the food to be either wholly familiar, or at the very least similar to what he was used to. Culture, meal styles, and even family dynamics of the gryphons seemed to be too similar to his own people’s to be mere coincidence, and yet again, Diedrick found himself taking mental note of yet more things to analyze later.
The amount of similarities between his kind and the gryphons was uncanny, and honestly, a little unsettling.
Even with his worries, Diedrick found the family of mythical creatures to be very kind and accommodating, and were more than willing to speak to him plainly. Even the youngest, Tara, had a few things to ask him, which made him smile for some reason. She was a cute little thing after all, and Diedrick had always been good with children.
Eventually though, dinner was finished and the youngest child was put to bed by her father, which left Diedrick at the mercy of two assertive gryphon females who began to poke and prod him with questions pertaining to anything and everything, ranging from his love life to, oddly enough, the request for sparring sessions between them. Diedrick’s answer to the latter was a “maybe” since he was unsure whether he should or not, but for the most part he found the friendliness offered to him a rather nice breath of fresh air since coming to this unknown planet. He was pleasantly pleased with his first contact with an alien species in his career, his initial meeting with the pony princess notwithstanding.
‘I’ll have to visit here sometime in the future.’ he thought privately.
As night fell and the house began to quiet, Diedrick went through his nightly routine of doing a few pushups and situps, then cleaning his gear and laying out his clothes for the next day. Routines were always a good thing after all, so if he was going to be on an alien world, he vowed to keep his habits intact to ease the transition.
Even with his attempts to relax, Diedrick found himself unable to sleep in the unfamiliar room, and soon found himself opening the nearby window to climb onto the butterfly roof. Laying down on his back, he began to look at the stars as the world slept.
The sky was as alien to him as could be, with patterns and constellations that were wholly unfamiliar, leaving Diedrick feeling more isolated than ever. Without a “next objective” or “next mission” to handle, he felt more than a little loss, which just left him unable to rest his mind and swirling thoughts within. Diedrick was no stranger to isolation and troubling thoughts at night, but somehow, the true extent of his situation finally hit him all at once. This wasn’t Diedrick’s first time in an unknown part of the metaverse, but every time before now the quantum burst transmissions had been able to contact his home system, eventually leading him home.
For the first time in his career, Diedrick began to doubt himself.
A faint rustling from the far end of the roof caught Diedrick’s attention, and in an instinctual reaction, he drew his energy pistol from his hip and readied it. His eyes sharpened, glittering in the light of the half-moon, and the pistol began to hum as it charged a burst of stunning electricity.
“Who’s there?” he called warily, darting his eyes about. “Show yourself!”
A pair of taloned hands were thrown up over the edge of the roof as a voice answered, “W-woah, chill out!” The shape of a familiar young gryphon floated up over the edge of the roof, flaring its wings briefly to land quietly.
Recognizing the violet accents of her feathers and eyes, Diedrick furrowed his brow. “Gilda? It’s late; what are you doing out?”
She walked over to him, nervously fiddling with her robe as she did so. After a moment of standing in silence, Gilda sat beside Diedrick and sighed. “Can’t sleep, like you.”
Diedrick raised his eyebrow curiously. “Wouldn’t your father be more than a little peeved that you’re sitting outside alone with an alien space soldier?”
Gilda laughed and shook her head. “Trust me, you’re not anywhere near the kind of person dad would be worried about. He’d be more worried about the chaos-causing draconequus kinda guy, rather than a respectable soldier.”
“What the hell is a draconequus?” Diedrick asked, holstering his pistol and laying back against the roof again.
Gilda lay down a foot or so away from him and answered, “Imagine a crazy-looking monster with the one arm of a lion, an arm of an eagle, a leg of a lizard, a leg of a goat, a deer’s antler, a goat’s horn, a snake’s tail, and two different-sized eyes of yellow with red pupils.”
The image brought to mind was...well, chaotic, and Diedrick couldn’t help but chuckle. “Oh, I’ve got to meet this thing at some point.”
Gilda shrugged, waving her hand in the air. “Supposedly he’s reformed now and only uses his powers for good, though we gryphons still don’t really trust him.”
Raising his eyebrow, Diedrick turned to his company. “Powers? What kind of powers?”
Gilda turned one eye to look at him without moving. “Magic. He can do pretty much anything with it, from making chocolate rain fall from cotton-candy clouds to eliminating gravity, causing everyone to just kinda float around.”
Diedrick frowned before turning his body and propping his head up on his bent arm. “There’s no such thing as magic.”
Realizing what he was saying, Gilda shook her head with a grin. “You’re not on your world anymore, captain. Here, magic exists, and it does some pretty crazy things.” She pointed to the sky and asked, “You came from space, right?”
Diedrick nodded. “Yeah. Took awhile to find this planet, but I found it eventually.”
“Notice anything weird about our planet system?” she asked, smirking. “You saw both the sun and moon revolving around the planet, didn’t you?”
Diedrick’s frown deepened, and he sat up completely now. “Yeah. Do you know why that is?”
Gilda nodded. “I do, and so does everyone else.” She also sat up, looking directly into Diedrick’s eyes. “That princess you met? Her and her sister use magic to move the sun and moon around the world, which is why it works like that.”
The implications of just how much energy and power would be required to move a star against inertia and gravity ‒ even a small one ‒ was frightening to imagine for Diedrick. Shaking his head he muttered, “N-no, that’s impossible. There is no possible way one person can go against the physical laws like that, let alone with telepathy.”
Gilda shook her head, laying back down and looking at the starry sky. “I’ve seen her do it, Diedrick. I’ve seen her stop the sun in the sky and move it around like it was just a toy to her; she’s more powerful than you could ever imagine.” She sighed heavily. “Dad told me what happened when you first met her, even though technically speaking, he wasn’t supposed to. Trust me when I say that you did what thousands of ponies, gryphons, and even dragons throughout history have tried and failed to do: you stared down the physical embodiment of the sun, and she blinked first. The only thing that kept her from ripping you apart was probably your threat to destroy the planet if she did. Make no mistake, she is stronger, faster, and more dangerous than anyone else on the planet, and somehow, you out-bluffed her.” She chuckled softly. “That’s probably the most insane, coolest thing anyone has ever done in the history of forever.”
As he tried to absorb the impossible things he was being told, Diedrick nodded dumbly with unfocused eyes. “Y-yeah, thanks.” He gulped audibly and asked, “Is she a goddess or something?”
Gilda shrugged. “No one really knows, though she doesn’t deny or affirm the rumors. I will say this: she’s one of only six people on the entire planet that have a permanent ‘not to be messed with’ sign taped to her forehead. She hasn’t really fought against anyone personally in, like, thousands of years, but legends say she used the power of the sun to fight back the dragons threatening the lands that would turn into Equestria.”
“She used the sun? What does that even mean?” Diedrick asked worriedly, now becoming a little more convinced of this princess’ power.
Gilda smirked. “I mean fire, and lots of it. No one knows exactly how she did it, but everyone knows that dragons are supposedly fireproof; I mean, they bathe inside of volcanoes for stars’ sake!” She then shook her head with a sigh. “Believe me, I know it sounds crazy ‒ hell, I didn’t believe any of it either when I was a chick ‒ but these ‘legends’ aren’t written in children’s stories, they’re in HISTORY books.”
Diedrick sighed and again turned his eyes heavenward. “So I just picked a fight with the most powerful being in existence...great.”
Gilda shrugged. “Lucky for you, she’s forgiving. I say give it a week or so and let my dad talk to her, and I think everything’ll work out alright.”
“Your father’s in good with the princess then?” Diedrick asked, finding his nerves slowly settling as Gilda explained things to him.
She nodded, smiling faintly. “They’ve been friends a long time, but I don’t know how exactly they met. All I know is that they trust each other, so if my father comes to trust you and tells the princess, she’ll ease up on you as well.”
“You know a lot about Equestria for not living there.” Diedrick observed.
Gilda went silent as she sighed heavily, seemingly deep in thought before she whispered, “A year ago, my best friend was a pony. I met her in flight school and trained in the Junior Speedsters with her, but after I had to come back home, we lost contact.” Again she sighed, though this one was layered with a deep sense of shame. “I went to visit her after like a year of us being separated, only to find she had a whole bunch of friends now, and I kinda overreacted a bit.” Gilda shrugged, trying to play it cool as she swallowed the lump in her throat and willed the tears not to fall. “I told her to choose between her new friends and me, and she chose them. After that I came back home, and I haven’t heard from her since.”
“That’s...remarkably sad.” Diedrick remarked, suddenly feeling the need to somehow comfort the young gryphoness. After thinking for a moment he stated, “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the only one that’s made mistakes like that. I’m certainly no saint, and I’ve done my share of alienating people close to me.”
“Did you ever stop acting like that?” Gilda asked hopefully.
Diedrick shrugged. “I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s a lot easier when there’s no one around to upset. Frankly, if I can get one person to not despise me outside of the military, I would consider that an accomplishment; it’s hard to make friends with people when I don’t cater my speech to be politically correct.” Turning his head to Gilda, he smiled softly. “You should try and be kind to those that deserve it, but if people don’t like you for who you really are, then you probably shouldn’t try and befriend them; it’ll be a waste of your time, and both of you will end up angry and hurt at the end.”
Gilda thought carefully on his words, and realized they made a lot of sense. What hurt was the fact that she thought her friend had liked who she really was, so she still felt a sense of betrayal from the bitter memory of her last jaunt to the pony lands. However, she could admit that it felt good talking to someone who seemed to understand that aspect of her life, and she found her buzzing mind quieting as her body began to relax.
Rising from the roof, she rolled her shoulders and readjusted her robe to cover herself to protect her modesty. “Thanks for the talk, captain. I think I’ll be going to bed now.”
Diedrick nodded. “Understood. If it’s alright, I think I’ll just sleep out here under the stars; it’s been longer than I can remember since I’ve last been able to.” Gilda nodded with a grin before hopping off the roof, spreading her wings and shooting back inside the open window to her room beneath the awning. With his mind somewhat at ease and weariness finally overcoming his tired body, Diedrick closed his eyes and rested.